Proper sample management is probably one of the most important tasks in any laboratory. In addition to optimal storage and identifiability, this should also ensure that no unnecessary problems arise – for example, when retrieving samples. In this blog post, we have summarized for you how sample management ideally works, which aspects are particularly important, and how problems can be solved.
Where is sample management needed?
The possible locations for sample management are as diverse as the samples themselves. In this way,diverse areas can be differentiated in which laboratory samples are regularly required. In particular, the most important areas include the following:
- Environmental analytics: Environmental analytics includes areas such as groundwater or surface water sampling and the analysis of wastewater. Here it is elementary that the individual samples can be evaluated in a differentiated and qualified manner.
- Quality assurance: Quality assurance can be found in almost every field – from food companies and material manufacturers to procurement, assembly and maintenance. In this context, sample management serves to create and maintain desired qualities.
- Order analysis:The situation is very similar for order analysis. This is outsourced and is intended to ensure a quality of concept and execution. The sample management challenge in this area can be significantly higher.
- Chemistry laboratory: Chemistry laboratories and medical laboratories also face special challenges, which is why optimization of sample management is essential. It is not unusual for several hundred samples to be analyzed each week, the loss of which can mean considerable damage.
Sample management processes
Since sample management should be perfectly tailored to different laboratory needs, the processes naturally do not always look the same. However, it is important that these are done in an orderly manner and according to strict guidelines. This is the only way to prevent laboratory samples from being lost or failing to meet the qualitative standard. Therefore, some elementary steps after samplingshould not be missed:
Recording of orders and laboratory samples
First and foremost is the recording of orders and sample receipts. So that the overview is not lost, these should be included either manually in a designated list or by system. This includes assigning a unique numberand other important sample data such as origin, priority and material.
Lists and labels
This is followed by the creation of work lists, run lists and labels. While the latter is mainly used foridentification and storage, the lists determine the further course of the samples. For example, this may include all open activities and the scope of analysis. The previously assigned number should always be carried along in order to be able to assign the corresponding sample at any time.
In most cases, it is necessary to be able to assign one or more measured values to the sample. Therefore, these should be kept in mind both at sample receipt and during the course. Reliable logging shows whether and which measurements or repeat measurements are to be performed or have been performed, and when and to what extent. Mostly a digital program is used to be able to keep track.
In addition, there is an initial and continuous limit value monitoring, which serves as a control. Here, in addition to analytical limits (such as the limits of quantification, detection limits and plausibilities), generally applicable limits (think, for example, of materials, customer or order data) can also be taken into account. Compliance with the limit values is determined with definitions and established via a warning and alarm system.
Online monitoring is a good way to clearly store and organize all important values, limits and data. In the meantime, there are some apps and programsthat also allow processing in rule graphs, which makes sample management even clearer.
Also, comments and controls can be added in an online view that can be accessed by multiple users at the same time – this can greatly facilitate the entire work process.
For storage conditions, primary attention must be paid to the material properties of the collected samples. This results in many different requirements that must be considered and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, small molecule compounds have an optimal storage temperature of -20°C, while this can be as low as -80°C for proteins, antibodies and assay reagents.
Storage serves not only to maintain sample quality, but also to protect viability and as an intermediate step in other processing operations. The labeling should remain clear in the selected storage form so that quick access can be made. Typical forms of storage for biochemical and biological samples include freezers and liquid nitrogen.
Incidentally, the same also applies when shipping laboratory samples. Here,temperature fluctuations must be avoidedin particular, which is not always easy in an emergency. In order to keep the ambient conditions as stable as possible, attention must be paid to optimized interior fittings of the transport containers and to well-sealing gaskets on doors and compartments.
Proper waste disposal must ensure that not only is sufficient documentation integrated into sample management, but also that disposal is performed in accordance with legal requirements. In principle, it is possible that this type of disposal will have to be proven later, which is why such a disposal note must be present for each discarded sample.
For many laboratory types with biological and biochemical sampling, Note 18 of the Federal/State Working Group on Waste (LAGA) applies, which categorizes and classifies the type of waste. This must be taken into account both in the case of independent disposal and in the case of commissioning.
Report and documentation
In addition, central master data should be created that clearly displays all important information on thelaboratory samplesand enables the process to be tracked. If these reports and master data can also be taken from the system in an orderly fashion (think of Excel lists or Word documents, for example), the process is usually made much easier. Common master data may include, for example, this information:
- Units (e.g. weight, volume or number)
- Materials (also with regard to additional safety precautions during storage and transport).
- Storage structure (such as location and accessibility)
- Analyses (actual status and planned parameters)
- Testing regulations (both legal and internal)
- Instructions and further storage or disposal or transport process
- Attributes of the samples
- Place of sampling
- Time of sampling (including possible shelf life)
Proper inventory and sample management in the laboratory
Thus, the integral components of successful inventory and sample management include several aspects that must be coordinated. Label management and data managementare particularly noteworthy. These two operations are essential to keep track of all samples.
Labels are those labels that are applied directly to the samples – either in the form of handwritten notes or as printouts. It is essential that the following characteristics are present:
- Resistance to temperature: For the label to withstand common laboratory requirements, it should be able to withstand temperatures as low as -96°C in liquid nitrogen and 100°C in a water bath.
- Resistance to solvents: The same applies to contact with solvents and disinfection. Therefore, a marking should be used that is – and remains – smudge-resistant to ethanol and isopropanol.
- Readability: In order to be able to assign samples (think of manual work processes such as pipetting), it is essential that the text on the label is legible. This is especially true for handwritten markings.
- Assignability: In addition, assignability must be guaranteed at all times. In this aspect, it can be helpful to resort to digital management with scannable codes.
But not only the marking on the samples, but also the overall picture must be overlooked. For this purpose, a database must be implemented to manage the information. In addition to Excel spreadsheets, more and more sample management software is emerging to facilitate this process. When managing data, pay attention to the following aspects:
- High flexibility for ongoing adaptation of processes and changes in the management of individual samples
- Decentralized access for different people working with the samples
- Error-free assignability of samples (for example, through unique sample IDs that can be scanned)
- Easy implementation and training for employees, so there is not too much extra work involved
Sample management problems
Where opportunities lurk, however, problems are always found – sample management is not excluded from this. The following challenges, for example, can be considered typical:
Labeling and marking by hand
Although some digital capabilities are now available, up to 90% (!) of all laboratories use handwritten labeling for specimens. These are not always clearly legible, making identifiability and tracking difficult. Not infrequently, this factor is a reason why high costs are incurred due to unusable samples.
Uniqueness in labeling
The same applies to the uniqueness of the labeling. If the above-mentioned requirements for the labeling of laboratory samples are not met, there is a risk of assignment errors and mix-ups. This can not only be expensive, but also have legal consequences.
Manual text input
Most laboratories currently still rely onmanual text entry into Excel spreadsheets as sample management. However, it is seen time and again that small errors happen during such text input, which could be avoided when scanning QR codes, for example.
LIMS – Laboratory-Information-Management-System
The counterpart to manual text entry are so-called LIMS (Laboratory Information Management Systems). They can be found in all analysis and diagnostics laboratories, digitally designing processes and making them plannable. However, even these systems do not come without problems – for example, they are associated with high acquisition and operating costs. In addition, the training of employees can be quite time-consuming.
Many samples require storage in high-end refrigeration and freezer systems, which not only carry impressive electricity prices, but can also negatively impact laboratory sample labeling. It also happens that objects are simply lost in the depths of the freezers if there is insufficient documentation about where they were stored.
Sample management software and mobile apps: the solution?
Those who work with handwritten labels and manual tracking of samples can enjoy some advantages – but are also affected by disadvantages that could be offset by software or an app. In particular, the difficulty of tracking and the clear collection and presentation of data are among the plus points of digital solutions.
But are sample management software (so-called LIMS) or apps an actual solution against emerging problems in daily sample management? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider not only the company’s own internal processes, but also the advantages of the corresponding digital options.
Traceability of the storage process
The individual LIMS (Laboratory Information Management Systems) and apps not only look different, but can also differentiate in terms of individual functions and options. At the top of everyone’s list, however, are labeling, data management and tracking of the storage process.
Samples can be reliably located by continuously updating the exact marker and location digitally – this can quickly end in chaos if you have a manual list with multiple users. Two conditions must therefore be met for digital systems: firstly, clear presentation, and secondly, decentralized simultaneous access by several people.
Separate documentation of laboratory samples after aliquoting
Aliquoting samples is one of the special cases of sample management and accommodates the challenge that property inheritance must be monitored. In doing so, previously defined properties must be structured as well as an unlimited number of aliquots must be defined – preferably in only one step. In addition, there is the documentation of the history of each individual laboratory sample after aliquoting.
These tasks are not only labor-intensive and diverse, but also almost impossible to implement manually when dealing with large quantities of laboratory samples. In order to be able to ensure error-free execution and documentation, it is therefore worth using software. The ordoSYSTEM sample documentation program has a special function for this purpose.
But of course, a digital database is only useful if it is equal parts useful and secure. Unlike handwritten sample management, LIMS and apps offer the advantage of protecting scientific and material value in a secure database structure. At the same time, there must be protection against unauthorized virtual access. Even simple Excel spreadsheets cannot meet these requirements.
Speaking of Excel spreadsheets and manual tracking: Even with decentralized access, these variants do not provide sufficient scope. Especially in larger laboratories with a higher volume of samples, there should be automatic documentation that can be accessed from multiple locations – and by multiple people at the same time.
This also includes the automatic documentation ofsamples, properties, storage, retrieval and transfer with user name, access time and location. Then the loss of samples will be a thing of the past.
Notable systems at a glance
Which LIMS or which app is the right choice for your own laboratory depends on several factors. In addition to the size of the samples, the structural design and the number of people authorized to access them, personal preferences regarding the functions and the interface also play an important role. For example, the following can be mentioned as potential candidates:
- pdv-lims3: An industry-neutral laboratory information management system that focuses primarily on the presentation of quality data (including limit values) and online monitoring.
- ordoSYSTEM: A special biobanking software that is particularly concerned with the uniqueness of samples as well as the security of data and networking of information among multiple users.
- Fluics Connect: An app for registering lab samples and data. Additional properties such as storage location, description, concentration, expiration date and custom parameters can be added. The sample labels are identified with a QR code.
- Mosaic: Storage tracking software that finds space in refrigerators and freezers for appropriate sample storage.
- Net: A LIMS with a modular structure that provides support for analyses, tests and examinations in the laboratory and also ensures holistic sample management – from sample receipt to disposal.
LIM systems or apps – which is more promising?
In principle, it can be said that both systems have some advantages over manual tracking of laboratory samples. Provided that the rather high acquisition costs of LIM systems are worthwhile, as a rule significantly more data and processes can be mapped. However, this is offset by the high effort involved in implementing and training for the system. GLP and GMP regulations must be strictly adhered to, which can require technical expertise.
On the other hand, apps are usually less comprehensive, but their operation is more intuitive, the price is lower, and training and implementation are easier. High costs due to sample losses can also be contained with this variant. The disadvantage can be that the offer on the market is so far rather small and larger data sets can be represented worse. However, it is undisputed that apps have a promising future in sample management due to their high development potential.
Although sample management must follow strict procedures, it requires flexibility with respect to the needs of individual laboratories. In the meantime, not only individual companies but also many universities are researching practical and efficient solutions in sample management – so not only have times improved, but the future also looks promising.
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